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Did Jewish Slaves Build the Pyramids?

Is it true that Jewish slaves built ancient Egypt's most impressive monuments, or does this popular tale misrepresent both cultures?

If you grew up anywhere in the Western world, you undoubtedly heard that Jewish slaves built the Egyptian pyramids until Moses led them away in the Exodus. Comparing this popular tradition to history, though, shows that we have a giant disconnect. Popular beliefs, religious tradition, and archaeological evidence tell us three very different stories.

While it’s a common belief that Jews built the pyramids, religious tradition (basically the first few books of the Bible) doesn’t include the pyramids at all; it only says the Jewish slaves built cities. But archaeological evidence can’t even support that much. There isn’t even any accepted evidence that there were ever large populations of Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt at all. Ever.

We do know that the first large population of Jews in Egypt wasn’t until about 650 BCE, two thousand years after the completion of the Great Pyramid. They were the garrison of Elephantine, an island in the Nile. Far from being slaves, they were allies of the Pharaoh who provided defense against the Nubians. Later they became the principal trade portal between Egypt and Nubia for ivory. We know a lot about them from the Elephantine papyri, which also give us at least one really interesting reversal from pop pseudohistory: Apparently, many of the early Jews owned Egyptian slaves; not the other way around.

If the stories of Jewish slaves, Moses, and the Exodus had been actual historical events, we would have both documentary and historical evidence of them. We have neither; unless you count scripture as documentary evidence, but the references simply aren’t there in the papyri and hieroglyphs that constitute the bulk of the evidence. The presence of Jews in ancient Egypt is also missing from the modern DNA analysis.

The bottom line is that a large population of Jewish slave laborers in Egypt — and the related stories of Moses and the Exodus — are *known* to exist only as traditions. None left the archaeological evidence we would expect to exist if they were literal. But we don’t say they didn’t exist; most likely, all these stories had bases in traditions or allegories that came down through oral histories. We can’t say what their origin was or wasn’t. But we can say that the story of Jewish slaves in Egypt and leaving en masse is better religious myth than it is history, and the Egyptians built their own pyramids.

Brian Dunning

Brian Dunning

References & Further Reading

Awad, M. "Egypt tombs suggest pyramids not built by slaves." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 11 Jan. 2010. Web. 2 Feb. 2010. <http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6091E720100111>

Comay, J. The Diaspora Story: The Epic of the Jewish People Among the Nations. New York: Random House, 1983.

Kraeling, E. Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri: New Documents of the Fifth Century B.C. From the Jewish Colony At Elephantine. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Lindenberger, J., Richards, K. Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.

Omer, I. "Investigating the Origin of the Ancient Jewish Community at Elephantine: A Review." Ancient Sudan-Nubia. Ibrahim Omer, 1 Jan. 2008. Web. 2 Feb. 2010. <http://www.ancientsudan.org/articles_jewish_elephantine.html>

Porten, B. Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

 

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